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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 136 | Noviembre 1992
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Nicaragua

Battle for the Budget

Xabier Gorostiaga

With the battle to assign 6% of the national budget to the universities entering into an uneasy truce after one of the most significant and decisive university victories in 30 years, Xabier Gorostiaga, rector of the Central American University (UCA), comments on what was gained and outlines the next steps.
envío: What is the significance of the struggle for 6% and the victory in which it culminated?
Gorostiaga: Demanding 6% of the national budget is an economic struggle that, in and of itself, would likely not have provoked a strike, much less ongoing mobilization and resistance lasting nearly 50 days. It's true that financing was needed and that we fought to get it to be able to finish out the academic year, but the real struggle was to guarantee a stable and permanent material base that would permit the consolidation of the higher education system this crisis-ridden country needs. The National Council of Universities can't be fighting for its budget every year. This lack of stability isn't in the country's interest and even less so in the universities' interest.
envío: Was it also necessary to fight for the budget during the Sandinista government?
Gorostiaga: There were financial problems then, too. But during that period, the budget wasn't as determinant, because there were a lot of subsidies, including transportation, health care, the basic food package (AFA) for workers and others. Moreover, at that time, a war was going on and the university had to take on some exceptional tasks, including health, production and educational campaigns. While the universities only received between 2% and 4% of the budget, you can't establish comparisons with today, since over 50% of the national budget at that time was dedicated to defense. It was a time of war for the country's youth and for the universities. Today we want a university for peace, for recovery and for constructing a national project in the future.
envío: What was really behind the economic struggle for 6%?
Gorostiaga: It was an economic demand not only for this year, but also for the future. The National Council of Universities initially made its requirements known with a great degree of flexibility and a desire to negotiate, but the government remained intransigent and thus provoked the explosion. The political significance of the fight for 6% is that the role the universities are to play in Nicaragua is at stake.
The government has marginalized the university, with the Ministry of Education absurdly playing the university off against primary education. To put it another way, in the government's eyes, the university has no significant or meritorious role to play in Nicaraguan society. Thus, the struggle for 6% was also a struggle to define a new role in society for the universities in the midst of Nicaragua's crisis. It demanded a new stable, constructive and permanent relationship with the executive branch, the National Assembly and Nicaraguan society.
There's another aspect as well, which I would call moral, and which took on increasing importance as the strike stretched out to seven weeks. There was an attempt to distort the university's image, with a propaganda campaign painting it as a hangout for bums, terrorists or simply people who didn't want to study. This implicitly distorted the university's role and reality. It became necessary to reconstruct the university's image and legitimacy and the role it must play in society. I think that, in large part, we were successful. The students' attitude was largely a civic one, despite the violence of the government's attacks and of some minor incidents in seven weeks of real tension.
envío: Why did the issue of fees not enter into the discussion?
Gorostiaga: Our struggle wasn't only for 6%. It was the search for a material base that would permit the universities' survival as just, rational, participatory and democratic institutions. It wasn't appropriate to take up a discussion of fees without first guaranteeing a minimal budget base.
The government could have used the fee issue as a substitute, to avoid facing the university demands head-on and force a de facto privatization of higher education. The issue of fees was never rejected outright at any point in the campaign, but rather was seen as something to be taken up after guaranteeing this minimal budgetary base. With that in hand, we can now reinitiate and consolidate university reforms and program the financing still lacking for university research and development. Forms of self-financing beyond the 6% were never rejected. But beginning this discussion without having first guaranteed the 6% would have given the government a pretext to abandon its responsibility towards higher education. Faced with a campaign emphasizing primary education with no vision of the future, a campaign that disparaged the universities, the demand for 6% took on a new character: recovery of the universities' dignity and national presence.
envío: What did this battle for 6% mean in the overall context of a neoliberal avalanche?
Gorostiaga: A continental and even worldwide project is currently underway, directed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, to transnationalize, privatize and commercialize higher education. The vision is to emphasize primary education in our countries so that we continue to serve as producers of raw materials and cheap labor at a time when the value of both has fallen drastically due to the technical-scientific revolution, the "robotizing" and dematerializing of production. We in the South are being condemned to structural misery and competition among ourselves, "specializing" in low-wage labor forces and cheap and protected raw materials. Our only possibility of fighting against this neoliberal project imposed by the Group of Seven and multilateral organizations is to create human capital, to develop technology and our own added value that responds to a national development project. This is what is at stake now, and not only in Nicaragua.
The rectors of all the Jesuit universities in Latin America recently had a meeting in Caracas, Venezuela, attended by representatives from the US. There was also a meeting of Latin American rectors in Madrid and Mexico. The most outstanding issue was the demonstration that the same problem of slashing university budgets, accompanied by these arguments against the universities, is happening to all of us. This is a far-reaching neoliberal project that aims to control the universities. Thus, the struggle in Nicaragua is not to channel money towards primary education or health care, as Minister of Education Humberto Belli argues. It is to give hope back to society in a context in which the country has no solutions to the problems of poverty, unemployment and the collapse of production. The government has demonstrated a striking inability to search for a real solution to this crisis, despite the substantial foreign assistance it has received. Even the FSLN itself admits it has no real alternative. We feel that one of the places where alternative thinking and proposals can emerge is the university. What is at stake, then, is this possibility of consolidating a center of thought, a national platform of study and pragmatic proposals, a platform to create consensus from a new, democratic point of view while preparing a new generation of Nicaraguans in a non-polarized, constructive environment.
envío: To what do you attribute the massive popular support that the university struggle received?
Gorostiaga: The people supported this struggle, even though they were aware that many of their children would not benefit directly from the victory because their poverty doesn't allow them to finish high school much less enter the university. Market women, bus and taxi drivers and many others all demonstrated a solidarity reflecting the hope that the university struggle had sparked in many people.
The director of the UCA's John XXIII Institute reported in one Mass held at the height of the strike that peasants in Siuna interrupted their meetings to listen to Radio Universidad and keep abreast of the struggle. Hope was on the rise again, after having been quashed starting in February 1988 with the first economic adjustment policies that left people fighting just for survival.
People supported the university struggle because in it they saw something new. They saw a youth that, as at every moment of crisis, has been a wellspring of hope. I also think there was support because this struggle was civic and non-violent, it was a new form of struggle. Some tires were burned, eggs were thrown, and graffiti was painted, all of which, in my view, hurt the struggle and drew middle- and upper-class people's attention away from the legitimacy of the protest's real national issues. Nonetheless, I maintain that in the history of Latin America, it is rare to see such a peaceful struggle carried out in the universities. In addition, one must be realistic and recognize that this is a post-war university generation, many of whom participated on one side or the other of the war and thus have military experience.
The only act of violence, in which the windows of the La Fé supermarket were broken, resulted from the provocation by the Minister of Government who ordered the riot police to attack the students with tear gas and rubber bullets while they were peacefully congregated in the parking lot outside the market. That happened at 4:20 pm, even though the students had already made an agreement with the supermarket administration to finish their rally by 5:00 pm.
envío: What guarantees are there that the universities will receive their entire budget next year?
Gorostiaga: The government has the autonomy to define in what form it will pay the 6%. The authentic interpretation of the law approved by a majority of the National Assembly declares that it must pay 6% of the ordinary and extraordinary income in the general budget. We fought for a calculating method that would stabilize the universities' economic future, and Law 151 of August 19, 1992 [the authentic interpretation], clearly establishes that.
The government can act in different ways. It could begin an era of collaboration and work with all the universities, in a joint effort to pull Nicaragua out of its crisis. This is the proposal that the National Council of Universities publicly presented in its communiqué declaring the end of the strike and the beginning of the final exam period.
On the other hand, the government could try to gain time and postpone paying the 6%. It may well try to reduce the 1993 budget, siphoning off funds to autonomous organizations, including FISE [the Emergency Social Investment Fund], FASO [the Fund for Social Assistance to the Oppressed] or even to the Central Bank. It could even make the law and the "rule of law" vanish, by sleight of hand. We economists know these tricks well. It would be unfortunate if this were to happen, as it would once again provoke a crisis in the universities because the struggle would not have ended. The government would also lose its opportunity to assist in building a constructive national platform aimed at creating consensus and proposals to overcome the crisis.
We in the universities have assured the government that our victory does not consist of making it pay the bill for this 6%. What we're really interested in is a new and constructive relationship between the government and the university. But we're also clear that the tension hasn't ended and negotiations regarding disbursement of the remaining 38 million córdobas [$7.6 million] has not begun yet, a month after the National Assembly vote. Once again we're demonstrating a calm and civic attitude, but this situation cannot go on very long. This doesn't mean that there will be new strikes and that the academic year will be lost. We'll continue defending the rule of law in an intelligent manner. We've gained space, legitimacy and social support, and are fighting for a new role for the university in society, to create more hope in this Nicaragua that is not overcoming its national crisis, or above all its crisis of hope, since no proposal for the future is on the table that has a national base of support.
envío: What did the rest of society gain by the 6% victory?
Gorostiaga: When the struggle was at its peak, I said that to fight for university autonomy was to fight for national autonomy. Now that several weeks have gone by, that declaration has proven to be true, as it seems to me that national autonomy has never been more restricted. The spaces for national decision-making have been reduced to a minimum. Under these circumstances, the space gained by the university is very important. Moreover, a new form of civic struggle has been forged at a time when the old, more violent forms of struggle were losing popular support.
To me, another important triumph of this university struggle was the recovery of the national flag, which had been appropriated as a symbol belonging only to the right-wing parties and, moreover, a symbol of revenge. During the struggle, the national flag was taken back for popular causes. It was the only flag flying in the university demonstrations. When we won the vote in the National Assembly, the young women and men who had been on an extended hunger strike embraced each other, in tears, and raised the national flag. I myself noted that the UNO representatives in the National Assembly looked extremely surprised when they saw that only the national flag was flying that day. What they had characterized as "Sandinista mobs" included UNO students, broad groups of Liberal youth, Christian Democrats, demobilized contras, all in one embrace, with the nation's flag in their hands, dancing for joy around the National Assembly.
envío: Is the current university structure capable of continuing a new relationship with society at large?
Gorostiaga: Linkage between the universities and grassroots movements, business and the government is the most important element in the search for a democratic, grassroots and sustainable alternative for Nicaragua and Latin America. The poverty advancing exponentially across the entire continent is producing an ecological disaster equal to or greater than what the transnationals produced or the contamination the north has transmitted. Today hunger is the environment's number one enemy, because we are literally eating away our future in order to survive today. All these elements point to the urgency of drawing up an alternative way of thinking, but at this moment the universities are still a long way from that, partly because we are absorbed by the struggle for survival and the university reforms.
In the universities we have two simultaneous and interwoven tasks, neither of which is easy: restructure the universities internally to achieve more effective links between them and both society and the state. These neoliberal projects will probably continue for some time, so the universities must enter into an intellectual debate with governments and with society to search for a way to overcome the tremendous social costs of these policies, as well as to prevent the chaos brought by massive hunger and unemployment.
Thus, we have to work simultaneously on internal reforms and on a search for the academic quality demanded by these serious problems, at the same time as we work on formulating new national and continental alternatives. In this process of confronting national reality, both academically and technically, the new generation is being formed. It will overcome a past of war and polarization and construct a university for everyone; its mission is a Nicaragua for all.
This difficult task requires, in fact demands, the commitment and support of the entire society to the higher education system, integrated into and complementary to the national education system.
envío: What role can the university play in this crisis?
Gorostiaga: In Nicaragua, the universities could become the country's main platform for consensus and peace. The government spent 80 million córdobas on disarming the country, and today once again we're seeing people taking up arms, an abundance of weapons and serious confrontations in the northern provincial cities. A black market of arms has been created because there is neither production nor a future in this country. Thus, arms are still seen as a solution to a crisis of survival with no future. Meanwhile, in the universities we have thousands of demobilized soldiers from both the army and the contra forces who are coexisting fraternally, amicably, without spending a single cent on disarmament. If the hundreds of millions of dollars of international assistance had been invested in creating a better productive and/or educational future for the demobilized soldiers, restarting production and creating employment, the country would be much more peaceful, and there would be more possibility of attracting national and foreign investment, instead of the capital strike we see today, due to a lack of future prospects here.
In this sense, we have a great challenge ahead of us. After the legal, political and moral victory of the struggle for 6%, we are beginning to prepare ourselves so that the 6% will go to development, to creating a new Nicaraguan university that brings together all the country's universities, and that will also have constructive relations with primary and secondary education and with the new private universities, such as the Catholic University. We need an authentic National Education System that can help overcome this crisis.
envío: Why a national system?
Gorostiaga: If primary education is bad and secondary education is deficient, it's very difficult for higher education to be good. Two additional years of general studies are required to achieve an academic level appropriate to the university. If, for example, the math being taught in primary school doesn't respond to the needs of new technology and the whole new world of informatics, we're going to have to change the mentality of all the children coming from our primary and secondary schools. It's very serious to continue teaching a math that has no relation to modern science.
The government has created a false and extremely dangerous dichotomy between primary and higher education, when they are really part of one educational continuum. Moreover, its arguments cover up the abandonment that primary education is currently suffering, along with the continued growth of illiteracy even after the end of the war. Everything that was achieved during the previous decade is being destroyed. Though there were many errors, there were also programs that received international recognition, including the National Literacy Crusade and the Adult Education Program. Everything upon which something new and better could have been built has, in large measure, been destroyed. Now, the country no longer has that and there's nothing new to replace it. We're facing an educational crisis that is affecting education from the primary levels up through the universities. The university struggle therefore seeks a National Education System, a democratic and modern system capable of overcoming the crisis, rather than using education as a polarizing factor that worsens and even drags out the crisis.
envío: What importance should be given to scientific research as part of the academic reforms you refer to?
Gorostiaga: We need to give it as much as possible. While in the developed countries of the North, a large percentage of the Gross Domestic Product is invested in research, in Latin America research and development are losing out. During the last decade in Nicaragua, in addition to the scant amount of research going on in the universities, some research was taking place in the ministries, for example in agriculture, in culture, in energy. Today it is only carried out in the universities, with almost no financial assistance from the state. In the UCA, which is the situation I know best, all research is done thanks to agreements with other universities—Latin American, US, European. For each córdoba the UCA invests in these research projects from its own budget, three, four or even five córdobas come in from foreign sources. If the university budgets are cut, the ability to absorb international resources for research, technology transfer and post-graduate studies may be affected as well.
Nicaragua has the only solar map in Central America and I think in all Latin America as well, due to a project being carried out in collaboration with INE [the energy institute], with Swedish financing. Some examples of the many other things that could be done would be research to save the country's cattle herds, preserve and improve the tropical reserves, etc., in cooperation with different ministries and even private enterprise. The National University, the Agrarian University, the Engineering University and the Polytechnic University could all make substantial contributions by incorporating foreign technology and resources in other public and private entities. But all this requires at least minimum financing, which is what we hope to gain with the 6%, and particularly the forging of a new relation with the state, society and private business to search together for a lasting solution to the crisis shaking the country.
The universities can offer alternatives and have demonstrated that in their struggles to date. But, although the university as an institution is capable of generating an alternative vision, it is still unable to guarantee what will happen to professionals once they have their degree in hand. There are no guarantees that a professional will remember the people who indirectly financed his or her studies through taxes. And this is precisely an urgent topic for reflection and discussion that we must take up at once. Damned be the university that creates successful professionals in a failed society.
The university has no reason to exist in and of itself, isolated from society. The university only has a reason to exist insofar as it puts itself at the service of the public, particularly from a Christian perspective, which is what we hope to transmit in the UCA.
There is another collateral aspect. At this moment, when US intervention in Nicaragua's internal affairs is reaching heights never before imagined, when the $100 million promised Nicaragua has been frozen to exert ever-increasing pressure on the country, the university struggle emerges as a resounding voice reclaiming and defending its independence and autonomy. University autonomy is part of national autonomy and sovereignty. Neoliberalism is unable to accept any expression of independence: it is a totalitarian and absolute market system that refuses to tolerate even minimal adversarial expression. The apparently small fissure of autonomy that the universities represent makes the whole neoliberal edifice wobble because it blocks the absolute submission that is key to neoliberalism and to the US government.
envío: What is the next task?
Gorostiaga: We're trying to create a new university project and this is the most important battle currently underway. At the same time, we're attempting to achieve a constructive relationship with the government. If we don't achieve that, we'll have to continue the fight for survival, wasting our energies and unable to dedicate our time to the truly important tasks ahead, such as the university reforms and participating in the construction of an national project that gains the consensus of the majority.
envío: Have negotiations begun with the government?
Gorostiaga: A month after the favorable vote in the National Assembly, the executive branch has yet to begin negotiations, justifying this lack of action in the judicial lack of clarity in Law 151, which interprets Law 89, the law of university autonomy. The authentic interpretation in Law 151 states that "the ordinary contribution of the state as a minimum guarantee to make university autonomy effective must not be less than 6% of the general income budget of the Republic, and should be calculated based on total ordinary and extraordinary income and established in the General Budget of the Republic for the corresponding year independent of the origin of said income."
To be frank, I don't know what Heavenly Court should now offer another interpretation of the interpretation approved by the National Assembly majority. We hope to begin negotiations with the government in the coming days and I'm confident that national interests will prevail over any specific interests, for both the universities and the executive branch.
I think the National Council of Universities communiqué at the end of the strike demonstrated tremendous flexibility and pragmatism and, at the same time, put forth a proposal of collaboration with the government to overcome the national crisis.
God will not allow us to lose this opportunity at a time in which the country needs to find new forms of harmony and collaboration, at a moment in which it is under siege from the United States and wracked by deep divisions between the executive, legislative and judicial branches and when we are even seeing a rise of military activity in the country's northern regions. We want to testify to the National Council of Universities' political desire to avoid a resurgence of the university crisis. "Let's be part of the solution, not part of the problem," [recently deceased UCA rector] César Jérez declared, and we are continuing to work along those lines.

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